Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Customer Is Always Wrong

by Wolcott Gibbs

Just as the advance agent for a circus is not likely to be disturbed by even the largest elephant, so his metropolitan equivalent, the Broadway press agent, can look on the most succulent actor and still remain composed. This is a natural condition, since both actors and elephants, observed for any length of time at close range, are apt to seem no better than anybody else. It is remarkable only when the publicity man, who after all is paid to exploit these phenomena, makes no attempt to hide his good-natured derision.

There are a good many press agents in New York who operate on a sort of man-to-man basis with their clients; Richard Sylvester Maney, the most prosperous gnome of the lot, is the only one who persistently treats them with the genial condescension of an Irish cop addressing a Fifth Avenue doorman. This comparison isn’t altogether arbitrary. Most doormen are more ornamental than cops, and practically all actors are more beautiful than Maney, but fundamentally, like the cop, he is a more impressive figure and they know it. A few conspicuously high-class performers, such as Maurice Evans and Noel Coward, have reached a state of precarious equality with their employee, but the rest are kept strictly in their places.

Mr. Maney’s manner toward his inferiors is firm, though not unkind. Playing with them in one of those interminable games of chance that serve to keep him from being even richer than he is he seldom bothers with their actual names. “All right, actor, it’s your turn,” he will shout impatiently when some Thespian appears to him to be dawdling, and “actor” in his mouth is an Elizabethan word, with low and foolish connotations. Being a gentleman, he is more restrained on the whole with the ladies of the profession and even greets them from time to time with what he probably imagines are terms of endearment "Thanks for the baubles, my peculiar witch,” he once said politely to Miss Grace Moore, for whom he was working at the time and who had given him some pretty cuff links in a timid effort to melt his spectacular indifference. Miss Moore was enchanted.

He has a little more respect for producers, perhaps on the ground that they are occasionally men of some slight substance, though even here his admiration can hardly be called slavish His notorious love with Billy Rose, who once recklessly employed him to exploit his vast and quite incomprehensible enterprises, has been discussed in print far too often to be repeated now, but many other producers have paid handsomely to be insulted both in the newspapers and privately.

“Mr. Harris has finally combed the last Cossack out of his curls,” Mr. Maney remarked genially in the Tribune by way of announcing Jed Harris, after a series of noble but discouraging experiments with the Russian drama, was again prepared to grapple with our native product. He was also impolite to his sombre young master during office hours. Like many another man of large affairs, Mr. Harris lived with the dream of getting a little order into things, and for this purpose he introduced an elaborate system of interoffice memoranda for the use of his staff. These were supposed to constitute a dignified and permanent record of what went on in the Harris organization, but for some reason Mr. Maney found this idea irksome. Memoranda began to appear bearing such messages as “To: Mr. Harris. From: Mr. Maney. Re: ‘What time is it?” and presently the whole system collapsed from sheer overproduction. A sign also turned up one day on the door which Mr. Harris dreamed his majestic and turbulent dreams. “Where the grapes of wrath are stored,” Maney had printed neatly. Insofar as he was capable of admiring anything except a mirror, however, Mr. Harris cherished his queer employee.

Once, during one of Maney’s several operations with Herman Shumlin, he watched with disgust while his usually sensible colleague labored with the production of a spectacle called “Sweet Mystery of Life,” in which the actors fumbled about in the bloom, dwarfed acres of scenery. It flew closed like a door, as Maney sometimes describes this occupational mishap, and Mr. Shumlin turned to his press agent for consolation. He made a mistake. “Sweet Mystery of Life indeed!” retorted that rough diamond. “It was the triumph of lumber over art.”

Another producer to suffer from Maney’s basic inability to disguise his feelings was Courtney Burr, who once asked him whether a simple dinner coat or tails would be more appropriate for one of the openings. “You better wear your track suit,” said Maney, and this, it turned out, was a prophecy.

Even Gilbert Miller, a famous cosmopolite, failed to awe Maney or shake his lofty integrity. One day, in a proud but misguided moment, Mr. Miller offered his hired man a shapely little announcement for the press which he had framed with his own cultivated hand. Maney read it through impassively and gave it back. “It isn’t English,” he said. Meekly, Mr. Miller made it English.

The problem of why so many sensitive and arrogant people agree to employ a man who is almost certain to hurt their feelings sooner or later is an interesting one. It would be easy to say that Maney is the best press agent in town and let it go at that, but somehow it seems too simple. He isn’t indispensable. There are other boys in the business capable of handling publicity with about the same competence and doing it much more politely and quietly, without nearly so much wear and tear on delicate egos. The secret lies somewhere in the complex and difficult riddle of personality. It is profitable to be associated with Maney, but it is also quite an experience in its peculiar way—perhaps not unlike drinking a very dry Martini, which is rather shocking at first but develops its own special glow as you go along. Almost all producers who have worked with Maney find it hard to put on a show without the curious extra flavor he adds to their lives.

This is by no means a triumph of sheer physical charm. Maney is not a handsome man. His wide face is pure Celt. He looks like a tough Irish altar boy who has grown up to be a popular Second Avenue bartender. He has no eyebrows worth mentioning and forgotten fights—invariably lost—have blurred the classic detail of his nose. Usually, as the evening wears on, he has a tendency to settle inside his clothes, like a turtle in its shell, and his eyelids come down to hood his eyes. A habit of having his dusty hair cut very short makes his head seem even rounder than it is. His body has the solid, humorous rotundity of a Teddy bear’s. Last year Time, in a rare spasm of felicity, called him a “roustabout George M. Cohan.”

Maney’s social behavior ranges from a wild truculence, when he lowers his head and bellows like a bull, to an equally furious gaiety, when community singing seems to charm him most. He particularly admires a noisy anthem called “My Dream of the U.S.A.,” which involvs banging glasses on the table, usually breaking them. At the game, the standard entertainment at a restaurant called Bleeck’s Artists’ and Writers’ Club and mathematically the most absurd form of gambling ever invented, Maney’s vehement offer to play anybody for twenty fish can easily be heard in the Herald Tribune editorial rooms next door. There is seldom a dull moment and, in spite of all the tumult, almost never one when people feel like getting up and moving to another table.

By contrast, it is always a little startling to meet Maney in polite evening dress, supervising one of his own openings. Courtesy sits on him like a shroud, and for some reason he seems a good deal smaller than usual. Even on these grim occasions, however, the basic Maney isn’t totally absent. He gets as many terrible shows as the next man and, while he doesn’t enjoy them economically, he takes a certain sardonic interest in their effect on the public.

“How do you like it?” he asked a tactful but honest young woman during the first act intermission at one such night not long ago.

“Well, that act seemed a little slow, Dick,” she answered reluctantly, “but I’m sure the others are much better.”

“That was supposed to be the good one, my deluded squaw,” Mr. Maney, and chuckled like a ghoul.

Meeting one of the authors of this same sad misadventure after the final curtain, Maney offered his fatherly comfort and advice. “Take to the hills,” he muttered hoarsely.

The most fascinating thing about Maney, however, lies in something rich and strange he has done to the English language. This curious form of speech is one of the small miracles of the town and was even imbedded in a play when Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur transplanted its author intact to the stage in “Twentieth Century.” The probabilities are that it was born in the first place as a form of compensation. Maney was properly brought up by a devout mother whom blasphemy was as shocking as second-story work. To spare her pain, the child throttled his vocabulary, but as he grew older, natural fury and exasperation in him mounted and, although his his speech remained as pure as a radio announcer’s, his fundamental outlook on life got to be as blasphemous as hell. An outlet was necessary before the little boy blew up and so there gradually came into existence a system of invective that sounded like swearing but was in fact as innocent as Mother Goose. Robert Louis Stevenson was operating on same principle when he created the most satisfactory gang of pirates in literature and never permitted one of them to say anything that couldn’t safely be read to an eight-year-old boy.

This theory is probably as good as any, but however it happened Maney today is the world’s greatest master of the disinfected epithet. While other and lesser men monotonously employ such clichés of displeasure as “son of a bitch” and “bastard,” his range is practically infinite. His clients and acquaintances escape the stigma of illegitimacy, but few other qualities or conditions are spared them. He is surrounded by Comic Spaniards, Unfortunate Aztecs, Foul Turtledoves, Penthouse Cagliostros, and even more fascinating compounds. He seldom repeats himself The well is deep and undefiled.

People who really know Maney submit to these caresses without resentment and usually with a certain amount of pleasure and admiration, although now and then a touch of bewilderment creeps into things too. A young man who had been wanting to meet him for some time finally got his wish, but his report of his experience was a little plaintive.

“I can’t seem to understand anything Mr. Maney says,” he confessed. “Is this usual?”

It is only when Maney gets outside his own circle, however, that the real fuss is likely to begin. One night, in the company of an actor and some other negligible character, he set out on a tour of the drinking places n a strange and forbidding section of the town. Time passed agreeably, but at last, although nobody was prepared to go home, it began to look as if everything else was closed up. Maney approached a native of the district, a colored citizen, conceivably on his way to work.

“Where can we get a drink around here, my vile Corsican,” he asked amiably. The dark stranger, though appearing more baffled than annoyed, swung nervously and Mr. Maney bounced on the pavement. This was clearly an occasion when simple blasphemy would have been less provocative, and there have been several others, so that for the most part Maney confines his night life to places where he is known and understood With the enthusiastic co-operation of their proprietors, he has banned himself for varying lengths of time from many resorts, including the Stork Club and Twenty-One, where he feels that the average customer doesn’t appreciate fancy rhetoric even when it comes up and spits in his eye.

In one case, the coolness between Maney and a certain fashionable pump room arose because he referred to its proprietor as an inflated busboy; in another, he approached an unknown but stylish icicle in a white tie and advised him to stop tossing his money around like a drunken sailor, a remark generally felt to be in restraint of trade. He reached the depths, however, as the result of a sincere effort to be polite. Entering a restaurant one day at the cocktail hour, he stopped to speak to a rich and beautiful young matron seated near the door. What he said was merely jocular, but it was misunderstood, and when Mane got to the bar his companions urged him, to go back and apologize. He agreed and started out on this courteous errand, but somewhere along the way Dr. Jekyll began to fade and the man who reached her table was unmistakably Mr. Hyde. “Listen, my painted Jezebel,” he began. The late Percy Hammond sometimes said with awe that his friend Maney had a distinctly voodoo personality.

Maney’s talent is by no means confined to calling peculiar names. His most casual pronouncement has an air about it, a quality of invention and balance and study. “Dames who put ginger ale in Scotch highballs should be submitted to the bastinado and reduced to moccasins,” he remarked offhand one night on this important subject, and visitors to his untidy headquarters over the Empire Theatre are greeted with pleasant extravagance. “Ah," the proprietor will shout warmly, “a spent runner staggers into the blockade, a Blackfoot arrow protruding from his back.”

In “Twentieth Century,” Hecht and MacArthur put a pretty line into the mouth of the character representing Maney. There is some talk about a Mr. and Mrs. Lockwood, who are occupying Drawing Room A. “Mr. and Mrs., hell,’ says the pseudo-Maney, “It’s Romeo and Juliet, hacking away at the Mann Act.” While not genuine, this is an almost perfect example of Maney’s verbal technique, being balanced in structure, florid in conception, and containing a useful classical reference. So fascinated was Billy Rose with some of his employee’s remarks that he gradually came to appropriate them as his own. In a recent and rather unaccountable address to the Harvard Business School, Mr. Rose described his feelings, at the opening of Jumbo.” “I stood on the Rubicon, rattling the dice,’ he told the enchanted students, who couldn’t be expected to know that this had originally appeared in Maney’s program notes some five years before. Mr. Rose has also quoted himself as having observed that “Jumbo” would either make Rose or break Whitney, another mot that was born elsewhere.

The literary bas-relief that ornaments Maney’s speech, incidentally, is quite authentic. He is a formidable student, especially of Shakespeare and other antiquities. On an “Information Please” program last spring, he delivered a good part of the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” and would have been delighted to furnish the rest if he hadn’t been restrained by the master of ceremonies. At his most typical, Maney sounds a good deal like a circus barker with an L.L.D.

The repository of all this charm and learning and fury was born. forty-nine years ago in Chinook, Montana, a whistle stop on the Great Northern with a population in those days of some five hundred. Today he describes it nostalgically as “a nest of mangy Crees,” and adds that it has the reputation of being the coldest damn place in the United States. From saying so a good many times, Maney has almost come to believe that he was the first white child born there and also that up to the age of twelve he preferred to converse in the Indian tongues. These things, however, seem rather unlikely. His father owned the local hardware store, but his heart was really in politics and he ran doggedly for everything, finally winding up as a trustee in the public-school system. His other innocent ambition was to make a musician, specifically a cornet player, out of his smoldering offspring. Maney blew the cornet from the time he was seven until he was twelve without developing much except a tendency to have a rather lopsided face. His mother finally put a stop to that.

“I’ll have no monster on this ranch,” she said, and the musician laid down his instrument without regret.

In 1906, Maney’s father set out in a box car containing his family, his furniture, and eight horses for Seattle, where he took up contracting and his son went through high school and entered the state university. In the summer, Maney drove a dump truck for his father and in the winter he studied, admiring the liberal arts and graciously tolerating everything else. Nothing in particular has survived from this period. Maney was not an athlete and his social life appears to have been
placid. From time to time he made fifty cents working as an usher at the Moore theatre, owned by John Cort, and after he was graduated with a B.A. in 1913 he persuaded Mr. Cort to give him a job.

A mist obscures the next thirteen years, and our glimpses of the principal actor are dim and intermittent He was one of four advance men for Anna Held in her “All Star Jubilee,” though not the man who thought up the celebrated milk bath. In fact, as he remembers it, the tour progressed through such backward country that nobody got a bath at all, including Miss Held. At one time he lived with, and on, an enterprising associate who had collected $3,000 in damages for falling down an elevator shaft. At another he operated an electric basebal scoreboard in a saloon and at still another he was manager of a theatre on upper Broadway at which the leading attraction was a nervous performer who held a fork in his mouth and tried to catch potatoes thrown from the gallery. Both Maney and this unusual artist lasted exactly a week. Once, for a brooding moment, he found himself back under his father’s roof in Seattle.

When everything else failed, he turned to a humiliating trade. “Whenever I couldn’t eat any other way, I looked around for a door to guard,” he says. There were a good many doors. He was visible to his fashionable friends taking tickets at various theatres, but particularly at the Morosco, where he wore a Cossack uniform weighing fourteen pounds. He was rescued from this public degradation by Bronco Billy Anderson, a star of the silent pictures, who, dreaming of better things, put on an opera called “The Frivolities of 1920” and employed Maney to publicize it for him. Accompanying this dubious charade to Boston, he fell in with a Shubert press agent fantastically christened A. Toxen Worm and through him at last entered the more or less respectable fringes of the profession. Sponsored by Mr. Worm, he was soon associated with the firm of Jones & Green, producers of “The Greenwich Village Follies” and finally, in 1927, he went to work for Jed Harris, succeeding S. N. Behrman and Arthur Kober, neither of whom found himself able to cope with that small, dark man about whose head the lightning played. In this fashion, by way of many strange back doors, Mr. Maney came to Broadway.

Before he did, however, he had been through one of the most singular experiences of his life. Back in 1919, when he was living an, carefree life with the man who fell down the, shaft Maney spent some of his abundant leisure contributing odds and ends to a sports column run by a friend. These compositions were informed as well as sprightly for Maney knows almost as much about baseball as he does about Shakespeare, and at length the word got around that he was a weighty expert on all matters dealing with recreation. Almost before he knew it, and certainly without any particular volition on his own part, he found himself the forty-dollar-a-week editor and staff of a highly specialized publication known as the American Angler.

Up to then all the fish that Maney had known intimately had been cooked; he neither knew nor cared how they got from the stream to the kitchen, and his opinion of anglers was low. Nevertheless, he was a conscientious man and he did his best. “Keep your flies in the water— trout don’t live in trees,” he advised his readers in one early issue, and a little later he wrote thoughtfully, “It has always been my contention that in a piano tuner, to a greater degree than in any other artisan, is concealed—possibly congealed—that quality which marks the successful fly-fisherman. Did you ever watch a piano tuner plying his painstaking if promiscuous art? No? Then do so at your first opportunity.” Maney went on for quite a while in this vein, to the confusion of the innocent fishermen.

The Great Trout-Fly Symposium, however, was a tremendous success. Looking for something to fill his yawning columns, Maney hit on a very nice problem for his single-minded readers. “If you were condemned to go through life with but three trout flies, regardless of weather, season, or locality, what three would you choose?” he asked them provocatively. The response was immediate and almost overwhelming. Dr. Henry Van Dyke wrote from Princeton, “If I were required to limit my trout-fly book to three flies (which upon the whole would not be an altogether bad thing) I should choose (1) Queen of the Water, (2) March Brown, and (3) Royal Coachman.” The Doctor was remarkably brief. Most of Maney’s readers spread themselves happily. “To limit myself to three flies is unthinkable,” wrote one O. W. Smith, “though I might get along with five if allowed several sizes, for, in my judgment, size is a more determining factor than pattern. When the water is clear and low, as is often the case in August, a tiny “Professor” will take the fish, whereas . . .“ This rhapsody filled an entire page and was accompanied by a photograph of the author, his hat bristling defiantly with flies of every conceivable size and shape. Several of Mr. Maney’s correspondents were appalled at the idea of trying to get through life so grotesquely handicapped, but with one exception all agreed that it was a good, interesting question. The solitary dissenter was a Mr. Louis Rhead. “I think the question very foolish,” he replied crossly.

After a while the atmosphere around the American Angler, with its strangely possessed visitors and the almost tangible memory of dead fish haunting the corridors, began to get on the editor’s nerves, and the breaking point came one day when a meek but persistent contributor drifted in looking for an assignment. “Go interview a successful trout, you underwater Boswell!” roared Mr. Maney, the veins rather p1easantly corded in his neck.

The writer vanished, but he was back again in a couple of days, and to Maney’s amazement and horror he had done exactly what he was told. “An Interview with a Successful Trout,” purporting to be a submarine conversation with a bright fish, appeared in the American Angler for April, 1919, and it is one of the most nerve-racking specimens of prose in the language. A brief sample. of the hero’s remarks is certainly enough:

“My friend Gorumpp, the bullfrog, keeps me pretty well informed about current events out of the water. He sits on a log and makes observations all day long, but at times he comes down here below for a visit. I him as a companion although I would devour him were he conveniently smaller. You think, it strange that I would like to dispose of friend? As a matter of fact, I wonder how long I could be powerful and handsome unless I were to catch something a good many times a day. The minnows—a principal art of my diet—are engaged all day long in capturing ephemerids and cyclops and various other kinds of things which in turn are catching something else.

“I suppose that right is might, and if it were not right for me to be here I might be lost altogether. I asked Rulee [the local fairy] about it, and she says that one thing catches another, clear down to the microbes, and that microbes catch each other. Your Molière or Shaw might have written about the sentimental features of the subject.”

There was something about this educated talk that convinced Maney that he had had about enough, and when the anglers invited their lovable old editor to judge a fly-casting tournament in Chicago, he quietly turned in his resignation and returned to Broadway, where the fish are sensibly kept in iceboxes and don’t talk.

Once he was established as a New York press agent, Maney’s progress was rapid. By the end of his third year he had represented such solid and memorable productions as “Broadway,” “Coquette,” “The Royal Family,” “The Front Page,” “Serena Blandish,” and “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” He had also perfected his attitude toward the theatre and the press. For the most part, Maney avoids the traditional milk-bath, tanbark, and stolen-jewelry approach to his trade, although he once abetted Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler when those two relentless elves announced that they were going to lie in separate coffins in a funeral parlor to celebrate the decease of an exhibit called “The Great Magoo,” and he was responsible for an advertisement calling for one hundred genuine noblemen (“Bogus counts, masqueraders, and descendants of the Dauphin will get short shrift”) to act as dancing partners at Billy Rose’s Fort ‘Worth Frontier Centennial. At the instigation of Mr. Rose, who never felt that he was quite sufficiently in the public eye, he even announced that an elephant would be shot out of a cannon as the first-act finale of “Jumbo.” This was meant to be facetious, and it was taken that way by everybody except the editor of Vanity Fair, who sent a reporter around to get a blueprint explaining how this prodigy was to be accomplished.

Such elementary pranks as these, however, haven’t had much to do with Maney’s success. He manages to get practically everything he writes—about six thousand words a week—printed somewhere or other, partly because it is invariably accurate, partly because it is written a good deal better than most of the material an editor would be likely to get from members of his own staff, but mostly because it sounds so little like publicity. This isn’t altogether intentional. Maney tries to turn out rich and beautiful prose about the work of the performers whom he genuinely admires—Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, Ethel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, and a few others—but there is a stubborn block between his enthusiasm and his typewriter, and what comes out is almost invariably tinged with derision and a suggestion that the theatre is a pretty comic business at best. Miss Hayes is his darling, but likely to find herself described as a scampering Columbine as the next girl. This frivolous tone, while a little dismaying to actors who dream of themselves as serious artists, is a relief to dramatic editors, who spend most of their days ploughing through thinly disguised advertising matter, and they print it gratefully.

The same flavor is evident in the capsule biographies which turn up in the programs of Maney attractions. Other press agents approach this routine task without much spirit, confining themselves to simple lists of the plays in which their subjects have previously appeared. Maney’s notes, however, are a nice blend of the irrelevant, the scurrilous, and, with an air of reluctance, the foolish facts in the case. At one time or another he has written, “Brenda Forbes has a scar on her left wrist, weighs 120 pounds, and emerged from her cocoon to play the serving wench in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” . . . “Frances Comstock was born during a blizzard in 1913, has sung in many of our toniest bistros, and over the air has given her lyric all for assorted toothpastes, lubricants, and juices.” . . . “Alfred Drake sprouted as a baritone when the Steel Pier at Atlantic City was supporting a vagrant opera company. He was billed below the cinnamon bears.” . . . “Donald Cameron got under way as a Roman rowdy, with spear, when Margaret Anglin came to grips with the Bard at the Hudson.” . . . “Nadin Gay is a fugitive from a Fanchon and Marco unit.” . . . “George Lloyd was last season understudy to a corpse.”

Maney has also commented from time to time on the theatre in general. “Producing is the Mardi Gras of the professions,” he once wrote sourly in the Times. “Anyone with a mask and enthusiasm can bounce into it.” Somewhere else he paid his indignant respects to actresses. “All female stars have one thing in common: after you stand on head to arrange an interview, they break the date because they have to go and get their hair washed.” Of his own part in all these
goings-on, he says, “The press agent is part beagle, part carrier pigeon, and salmon (the salmon only goes home to die).” In fact, of all the people connected with the trade, the critics are about the only ones who have escaped his sinister attention. For obvious reasons, Maney treats these peevish but powerful men with mittens on, and if it remains mystery to him how most of them got where they are, he keeps it to himself. He is an expert on all the curious feuds and phobias afflict them and he is careful to seat them (fifty on first nights, seventy-five on second nights) where they will be as nearly happy as their twisted natures will permit. “It is not always possible for the press list to embrace the reviewer for Racing Form or the Princeton Tiger,” he once remarked when pushed a little too far, but he is usually a model of discretion.

It is doubtful if this irascible behavior would work for everyone but it has paid Maney handsome dividends. During the past he has handled the publicity for an average of eleven shows a season, out of which four could be described as hits. Considering that the total Broadway output during this period ran to something like eighty offerings a year, of which about fifteen were hits, and that some fifteen agents (there are fifty all told) were passionately competing for the business, it is evident that Maney has been doing all right.

For the information of posterity, his exact record has been as follows: In the season that opened in the fall of 1936, he had four hits out of six productions; in 1937, a discouraging year, only one out of eleven; in 1938, five out of thirteen; and in 1939, five out of fourteen; and, last year, out of the ten shows he handled, five were definitely successful, including “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and the two winners of the Drama Critics’ prizes, “Watch on the Rhine” and “The Corn Is Green,” all three of which are still doing very well.

So far this season, Maney’s average is exactly .500. A dismal vehicle called “The More the Merrier” came and went, causing no more than a slight local irritation, but “The Wookey,” although not conspicuously admired by the critics, seems assured of a substantial run, largely for patriotic reasons. His further plans include a Maurice Evans production of “Macbeth,” in which there are rumors that Maney himself will play the Third Witch; “Clash by Night,” by Clifford Odets, with Tallulah Bankhead; and “Anne of England,” with Flora Robson, which was due to arrive this week.

It isn’t easy, even for Maney himself, to figure out exactly what income all this represents. Press agents are paid from $150 to $300 a week for each play, and Maney’s salary is usually up near the top. Thus, at the peak of last season, with six shows running simultaneously, his office was taking in at least $1,200 a week, and throughout the season the average was probably around $800.

Maney doesn’t get all this wealth himself, however. In 1937, after a period of bickering of no conceivable interest to anybody except another press agent, the less prosperous members of the trade, already banded together in something known as T.M.A.T. (Theatre Managers, Agents, and Treasurers), affiliated themselves with the tough and powerful Teamsters’ Union of the American Federation of Labor. While not openly directed against Maney or anybody else, this maneuver was designed to prevent any man from representing more than one show at a time without employing qualified assistants—men, that is, who had themselves been active press agents on Broadway within the preceding three years.

Maney, who up to then had been getting along handsomely without assistance, offered a certain amount of resistance to their demands. With a few almost equally fortunate colleagues, he retained Morris Ernst, an attorney not without his own grasp of publicity values, to preserve as much as possible of the status quo. Mr. Ernst went raging into battle.

“I shall never deliver this little group to the tender mercies of teamsters,” he promised his clients at a luncheon at the Algonquin, and they went away reassured. Some four weeks later, however, Maney and his friends were slightly dismayed to find themselves good and regular members of T.M.A.T. and very much at the mercy of the merry teamsters.

“I have a dim suspicion that somebody may have sold me out,” said Maney upon being informed of this shotgun wedding, but on the whole he accepted his defeat philosophically. By the terms of the agreement, he was obliged to hire one assistant at $75 a week as soon as he had two plays; to raise this salary to $100 when he got three; to employ second-man at $75 for his fourth, raising him to $100 for the fifth; and to hire still a third at $75 for the sixth This was as far as it could go, since the union ruled arbitrarily that no agent should be allowed to represent more than six shows simultaneously While Maney’s payments to his staff have run up to the limit of $275 a week, they probably average $100, so that organized labor costs him about $5,000 a year. Nevertheless, the chances are that the season of 1940-1941 netted him at least $25,000, or approximately twice the amount made by his nearest competitor.

His remarkable preeminence in his field was demonstrated in backhand sort of way once last year in the cooking column conducted by Lucius Beebe in the Herald Tribune. Mr. Beebe published a picture of Maney solely on the ground that all that week he hadn’t phoned.

Maney hasn’t any private life in particular. He is married and lives with his wife and stepson in a house in Westport, but he isn’t there much. When he isn’t on the road, engaged in preliminary tub-thumping, he gets to his office at ten in the morning, even on those occasional days when he feels as if he had eaten a bomb, and works grimly through until five or six. After that he has dinner somewhere and then, after calling professionally at a box office or two, he drops into Bleeck’s or one of its equivalents, looking for a match game or perhaps just somebody to shout at. When he gets home, either to Westport or his room at the Parc Vendome in town, it is usually somewhere between two and six and he goes to bed. Sometimes it is even later than that. Coming in one morning from an especially merry gathering several years ago, he was astonished to find his stepson, Jock, neatly dressed and about to go out.

“Where do you think you’re going at this ungodly hour?” asked Maney sternly.

“To school,” said the child.

The weekends, in fact, are about the only time his wife really has chance to observe him, and he spends them lying around in his pajamas, either reading about Napoleon, whom he admires even more Helen Hayes, or else simply licking his wounds. In spite of the Westport homestead, he loathes the country and avoids it whenever he can. This is partly because he has hay fever and partly because people keep trying to include him in their futile and dangerous games.

This rather restricted program, not to mention the continual association with actors and other inferior and disreputable companions, might depress another man, but Maney has no wish to change his lot. He has had offers from Hollywood and at least one enterprising publisher has tried to extract a book of reminiscences from him, but he has turned them all down. Scornful, indignant, frequently beside himself with rage, he is at the same time in a state of almost perfect inward adjustment. Just as Joe Louis can go into cold transports of fury in the ring while still finding there the whole explanation and justification of his existence, life in the theatre irritates Maney to the border of insanity, but perversely he loves every minute of it and he couldn’t conceivably exchange it for anything else. He is doing precisely what he wants to. In spite of all the thrashing around, he may well be the most contented man in New York. It is only fair to add that he denies this base charge even more passionately than he denounces fish.


The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate; that is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do. It is impossible to lay down any and complete formula for bringing order out of this underbrush, but there are a few general rules.

1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently I found eleven modifying the verb “said.” “He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on.” Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.

2. Word “said” is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting “grunted,” “snorted,” etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.

3. Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one and had better be removed.

4. Funny names belong to the past or to whatever is left of Judge magazine. Any character called Mrs. Middlebottom or Joe Zilch should be summarily changed to something else. This goes for animals, towns, the names of imaginary books and many other things.

5. Our employer, Mr. Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences beginning with “and” or “but.” He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.

6. See our Mr. Weekes[1] on the use of such words as “little,” “vague,” “confused,” “faintly,” “all mixed up,” etc. etc. The point is that the average New Yorker writer, unfortunately influenced by Mr. Thurber, has come to believe that the ideal New Yorker piece is about a vague, little man helplessly con fused by a menacing and complicated civilization. Whenever this note is not the whole point of the piece (and it far too often is) it should be regarded with suspicion.

7. The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with Stanley Steamer:

Marion gave me a pain in the neck.

“You give me a pain in the neck, Marion,” I said.

This turns up more often than you’d expect.

8. Another of Mr. Ross’s theories is that a reader picking up a magazine called the New Yorker automatically supposes that any story in it takes place in New York. If it doesn’t, if it’s about Columbus, Ohio, the lead should say so. “When George Adams was sixteen, he began to worry about the girls” should read “When George Adams was sixteen, he began to worry about the girls he saw every day on the streets of Columbus” or something of the kind. More graceful preferably.

9. Also, since our contributions are signed at the end, the author’s sex should be established at once if there is any reasonable doubt. It is distressing to read a piece all the way through under the impression that the “I” in it is a man and then find a woman’s signature at the end. Also, of course, the other way round.

10. To quote Mr. Ross again, “Nobody gives a damn about a writer or his problems except another writer” Pieces about authors, reporters, poets, etc. are to be discouraged in principle. Whenever possible the protagonist should be arbitrarily transplanted to another line of business. When the reference is incidental and unnecessary, it should come out.

11. This magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. The only test I know of is whether or not they are really essential to the author’s effect. “Son of a bitch,” “bastard,” and many others can be used whenever it is the editor’s judgment that that is the only possible remark under the circumstances When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no especial purpose, they come out.

12. In the transcription of dialect, don’t let the boys and girls misspell words just for a fake Bowery effect. There is no point, for instance, in “trubble,” or “sed.”

13. Mr. Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. “A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.” Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.

14. I suffer myself very seriously from writers who divide quotes for some kind of ladies’ club rhythm.

“I am going,” he said, “downtown” is a horror, and unless a quote is pretty long I think it ought to stay on one side of the verb. Anyway, it ought to be divided logically, where there would be pause or something in the sentence.

15. Mr. Weekes has got a long list of banned words, beginning with “gadget.” Ask him. It’s not actually a ban, there being circumstances when they’re necessary, but good words to avoid.

16. I would be delighted to go over the list of writers, explaining the peculiarities of each as they have appeared to me in more than ten years of exasperation on both sides.

17. Editing on manuscript should be done with a black pencil, decisively.

18. I almost forgot indirection, which probably maddens Mr. Ross more than anything else in the world. He objects, that is, to important objects or places or people being dragged into things in a secretive and underhanded manner. If, for instance, a profile has never told where a man lives, Ross protests against a sentence saying, “His Vermont house is full valuable paintings.” Should say “He has a house in Vermont and it is full, etc.” Rather weird point, but it will come up from time to time.

19. Drunkenness and adultery present problems. As far as I can tell, writers must not be allowed to imply that they admire either of these things, or have enjoyed them personally, although they are legitimate enough when pointing a moral or adorning a sufficiently grim story. They are nothing to be lighthearted about. “The New Yorker can not endorse adultery.” Harold Ross vs. Sally Benson.[2] Don’t bother about this one. In the end it is a matter between Mr. Ross and his God. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is definitely out as humor, and dubious in any case.

20. The more “As a matter of facts,” “howevers,” “for instances,” etc. etc. you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.

21. It has always seemed irritating to me when a story is written in the first person, but the narrator hasn’t got the same name as the author. For instance, a story beginning: “‘George,’” my father said to me one morning”; and signed at the end Horace McIntyre always baffles me. However, as far as I know this point has never been ruled upon officially, and should just be queried.

22. Editors are really the people who should put initial letters and white spaces in copy to indicate breaks in thought or action. Because of overwork or inertia or something, this has been done largely by the proof room, which has a tendency to put them in for purposes of makeup rather than sense. It should revert to the editors.

23. For some reason our writers (especially Mr. Leonard Q. Ross[3]) have a tendency to distrust even moderately long quotes and break them up arbitrarily and on the whole idiotically with editorial interpolations. “Mr. Kaplan felt that he and the cosmos were coterminus” or some such will frequently appear in the middle of a conversation for no other reason than that the author is afraid the reader’s mind is wandering. Sometimes this is necessary, most often it isn’t.

24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely cosmic last line. “Suddenly Mr. Holtzmann felt tired” has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.

25. On the whole, we are hostile to puns.

26. How many of these changes can be made in copy depends, of course, to a large extent on the writer being edited. By going over the list, I can give a general idea of how much nonsense each artist will stand for.

27. Among many other things, the New Yorker is often accused of a patronizing attitude. Our authors are especially fond of referring to all foreigners as “little” and writing about them, as Mr. Maxwell[4] says, as if they were mantel ornaments. It is very important to keep the amused and Godlike tone out of pieces.

28. It has been one of Mr. Ross’s long struggles to raise the tone of our contributors’ surroundings, at least on paper. References to the gay Bohemian life in Greenwich Village and other low surroundings should be cut whenever possible. Nor should writers be permitted to boast about having their phones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills, or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.

29. Some of our writers are inclined to be a little arrogant about their knowledge of the French language. Probably best to put them back into English if there is a common English equivalent.

30. So far as possible make the pieces grammatical—but if you don’t the copy room will, which is a comfort. Fowler’s English Usage is our reference book. But don’t be precious about it.

31. Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.

[1] Hobart Weekes, who had all the fancy education that Harold Ross lacked. “How the hell did you know that?” Ross demanded, when Weekes correctly identified a manuscript reference to a mysterious “William Blake.”
[2] Sally Benson wrote dozens of stories for the New Yorker. Her stories about growing up in St. Louis appeared under the title “5135 Kensington” and were the basis for the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, which, as far as I know, does not include a sympathetic treatment of adultery. However, some of her earlier stories, published under the collective title of Junior Miss, may have been more controversial.
[3] Aka Leo Rosten, whose stories about Mr. Parkhill’s adult education class of “colorful” Jewish immigrants ran in the New Yorker back in the Thirties and were later published as The Education of Hyman Kaplan.
[4] Probably William Maxwell, who was an editor at the New Yorker for close to forty years.